“The weather is rough and unpredictable,” says August Sandberg, skipper of our Swan 48, Isbjørn, and a native Norwegian, having grown up on an island outside Bergen at 60 degrees north latitude.
“The sun never rises. The sky is dark, and the air cold. You’re constantly chipping ice off your deck hardware to keep the boat sailing. I’ve had engine failures due to frozen seacocks and seen winds that tore the canvas off my boat as if it was made of paper.”
Living in Sweden and having spent a good deal of time sailing in high latitudes, I’ve also had a chance to experience these kinds of conditions and have, among other things, learned to dress accordingly. That said, it’s not just up north and in cold weather that you need the right gear. Farther south, you need to be prepared as well
After our Svalbard expedition in 2018, my wife, Mia, and I aimed south-south-south—so rapidly, in fact, that within six months of reaching 80 degrees north, we were back in the tropics sailing westabout across the Atlantic toward Antigua. Further complicating things, we couldn’t just swing by our home in Sweden along the way and swap out our gear. When packing for Svalbard, we also needed a wardrobe that worked in the tropics without exhausting the limited storage space on the boat. The solution? We layered.
Merino base layers, wool socks, Icelandic sweaters (which also look pretty bad-ass) and puffy jackets all made it into our seabags. In addition to our “normal” foulies—salopettes and jackets for sailing offshore—a hard-shell rain jacket and hiking pants also made the cut for inshore and when we go on land-based adventures. Our ship’s photographer, James Austrums, likes to say, “A jacket isn’t a jacket without a hood!” And he’s right, especially on breezier days, when we layered hoods, too, with a foulie hood over a puffy mid-layer. Two of each layer is plenty. That way you don’t sweat, and your stuff stays clean. (Note: it’s critical to keep a natural down puffer dry, or it won’t stay warm.)
Mia and I also packed several pairs of gloves. They will get wet. Among these was a pair of “helming” gloves we bought at the fishery supply in Tromsø, above the Arctic Circle. These include a thick, seamless rubber layer on the outside and synthetic sheepskin within. You’re like an astronaut in these with no dexterity, but they keep your hands both warm and—more importantly—dry at the wheel.
For sailhandling and hiking ashore, I prefer leather ski gloves, of the kind you often see professional ski patrollers wearing. They get wet, but I rotate a couple of pairs, which allows me to always have dry hands.
When doing intricate sail and rope work, or anything else requiring dexterity, we had to live without gloves for short stints or, in warmer climes, use thinner neoprene gloves meant to get wet. A pair of thick mittens was also shared among the entire crew to rewarm icy fingers after these kinds of maneuvers. Merino neck gaiters and a rotation of hats rounded out our wardrobe.
Of course, the beauty of layering, in addition to its effectiveness in keeping you warm, is its versatility. The same thin, merino base layers worked equally well on the passage south from Portugal to the Canary Islands. Simply skip the puffy mid-layer and wool sweater. Same thing with our foulies, which work equally well whether down south or in the arctic, and the lightweight hard-shell rain jacket I used so often hiking in Svalbard and which served as my go-to foulweather jacket in the Caribbean. You’d be surprised how chilly an upwind night watch can be even in the tropics.
Bottom line: for us, covering thousands of miles across varying climates, clothing has to serve more than one purpose or it doesn’t make the trip. Along these same lines, employing layers to keep you comfortable makes it possible to remain comfortable in any clime.
There is a ubiquitous aphorism all Scandinavians know and use: Det finns inga dåliga väder, bara dåliga kläder. “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing.” Words to live by when passagemaking in any part of the world.
Andy Schell is a veteran delivery captain and co-owner, with his wife, Mia Karlsson, of the adventure-charter company 59 North, which specializes in providing sail-training and offshore passagemaking opportunities. Visit 59-north.com for more information
Photos courtesy of James Austrum